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NASA Opens International Space Station to Tourists

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  • NASA will allow tourists and business ventures to visit the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2020, officials announced Friday.
  • The agency will now let two private astronauts a year visit the station for up to 30 days.
  • They will also open up the station to commercial interests, such as permitting private companies to buy time on the station to film advertisements.
  • Until now, NASA banned all tourism and commercial pursuits on the ISS, but now they hope opening the station to private actors will allow them to shift their focus and money to other missions.

NASA Announcement

NASA announced Friday that they will open up the International Space Station (ISS) to tourists and private companies as early as next year.

The agency said they will allow two private astronauts to visit the ISS each year and will allow the travelers to stay aboard the spacecraft for a maximum of 30 days. NASA also said that they will open the station to more commercial opportunities, such as allowing companies to film advertisements.

Under the new directive, NASA will let private companies buy time on the station to market, advertise, or test their products in space. Private entities will also be responsible for choosing private astronauts, as well as making sure that they meet the requirements necessary for space travel.

“Nasa is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” said NASA’s chief financial officer Jeff DeWit, but it also comes at a cost.

NASA has said it will charge companies around $35,000 a night to stay on the ISS, but the price tag for shuttling the astronauts to and from the space station will be set by the private companies themselves. DeWit estimated that the cost would be around $50 million a seat.

NASA has already contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to send flight crews to ISS.

A New Era

NASA’s decision marks a significant shift for the agency, which had previously prohibited tourism and commercial activities on the ISS.

While countries like Russia have sent multiple private astronauts on the station, the U.S. space agency has limited commercial activity on their side of the ISS to science experiments, and purely commercial projects were not allowed.

Now, the space station will be open to a wide range of possibilities. “We have no idea what kinds of creativity and literally out of the world ideas can come from private industry,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s head of human exploration.

A Move to Privatization

The announcement is a step towards NASA’s plan to eventually privatize the ISS entirely.

NASA hopes that allowing private interests on the ISS will generate additional revenue for the agency. According to The Verge, operating the ISS costs NASA $3 to $4 billion a year. Giving control of the ISS to private companies could open up more money for NASA to pursue other missions.

NASA is trying to send humans on a mission to the moon by 2024, and the agency has already said that they would need significantly more funding to do so.

Opening the space station to private companies also fits into NASA’s broader efforts to encourage the private sector to develop the region of space the ISS resides in, which is called low Earth orbit.

NASA has already commissioned 12 companies to look into methods for establishing private interests in low earth orbit, according to The Verge. The companies returned their proposals to NASA with ideas for space habitats that would either be attached to the space station or float independently in low Earth orbit.

These habitats could work as research sites or even host tourists. While the barrier to entry is high, the commercialization of space still opens up the potential for new and exciting business models and market sectors.

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (The Washington Post) (BBC)

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U.S. Cracks Down on Flying With Emotional Support Animals

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  • The Department of Transportation announced new rules Wednesday that only allow dogs to be considered “service animals” for the purposes of flying on a plane.
  • This means airlines will soon no longer need to accommodate emotional support animals and can block them from getting free airfare as well as cabin space.
  • In the past, the department treated service animals and emotional support animals largely the same, despite there being a difference.
  • The rule change has been celebrated by airline groups and passengers who argue that emotional support animals are often used as a way to game the system and transport an animal for free.
  • However, critics of the rule said it would be better to more strictly regulate what qualifies as an emotional support animal and to require training that is more in-line with what service animals go through.

No More Peacocks on Planes

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced new rules on Wednesday that more clearly define what qualifies as a service animal, allowing airlines to turn away hundreds of thousands of animals classified as emotional support animals.

In the past, the Department of Transportation (DOT) treated service animals and emotional support animals largely the same, despite there being a difference. Service animals are trained to help someone with a disability; with certain types of animals being defined under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Emotional support animals are prescribed by a mental health professional and have no training requirements.

For U.S. airlines, there will now be a fundamental difference. According to the DOT’s new rules, airlines will only be required to allow “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

This means no more turkeys, cats, peacocks, parrots, squirrels, or any other animal being allowed, free-of-charge and outside a secure carrier in the cabin of the plane.

Rule Has Long Been in the Works

This new rule wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. For years airlines have asked the DOT to regulate the issue out of concern that people were passing off their pets as emotional support animals. With the lack of regulation about what an ’emotional support animal’ actually is, there was little recourse for airlines.

Rules around emotional support animals have proven to be much more relaxed. In fact, there are mental health companies that will give such a classification online without ever physically seeing the patient or the animal. On top of people trying to get their pets onto flights for free, according to the DOT, airlines were fed up with “requests to transport unusual species of animals onboard aircraft.”

These animals often lacked specific training to be transported in planes, in a cramped space, and surrounded by people for hours on end, leading to animals misbehaving on planes.

According to American Airlines, between 2016 and 2017, the number of emotional support animals being brought on planes went from 481,000 to over 750,000.

The new rule isn’t a blank check for service animal owners.

Under the new rule, airlines are allowed to block certain service dogs from being on a plane if they’re obnoxious to passengers – a rare occurrence considering how well-trained the dogs are.

Additionally, they can ask that owners fill out a new form “attesting to the animal’s training and good behavior, and certifying the animal’s good health.”

Another stand-out in the new ruling was the decision to exclude other highly trained service animals. The DOT considered expanding the rules to allow more than just dogs to be qualified as service animals, which are by far the most common type of service animal.

However, The American With Disabilities Act (ADA) also includes miniature horses as service animals. Those horses can often be smaller than some of the largest breed of dogs. Still, there’s nothing in the ADA that conflicts with the DOT’s decision, as it allows for some restrictions to be placed on miniature horses.

While the ADA only recognizes dogs and miniature horses, there are other intelligent animals that have been used as service animals, such as Capuchin monkeys. These monkeys are increasingly used as service animals because of their dexterity for people with mobility impairments.

Airlines and Services Speak Out

Airlines for America, a trade group for U.S. airlines, was happy with the new rule.

“The Department of Transportation’s final rule will protect the traveling public and airline crewmembers from untrained animals in the cabin, as well as improve air travel accessibility for passengers with disabilities that travel with trained service dogs,” it said in a statement.

American Airlines made a similar statement, with a spokesperson telling outlets: “This new rule reflects a respect for individuals with disabilities who travel with legitimate service animals, which we share while providing clear and practical guidelines that will eliminate the abuse of the system that has been a source of concern for our team members and customers.”

CertaPet, a company that will screen animals and provides letters saying they are emotional support, said in a statement that the rule is “a great disservice to those facing mental health challenges that get emotional support from their animal.” 

The company thinks a better approach would have been to more strictly regulate what qualifies as an emotional support animal and to require training more in-line with what service animals go through.

We understand that there have been incidents that have discredited emotional support animals and the service they provide, but those situations could be prevented by increased regulation,” CertaPet added.

“We think emotional support peacocks are ridiculous too.”

The new rules aren’t in place quite yet. They’re set to go into effect 30 days after they enter the Federal Registrar, which still hasn’t happened. Additionally, this ruling doesn’t preclude airlines from freely allowing emotional support animals on their flights.

It’s recommended to check with your airline before expecting your emotional support animal will get free airfare.

See What Others Are saying: (NPR) (CNN) (BBC)

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Former Presidents Pledge To Get COVID-19 Vaccine Publicly To Prove It’s Safe

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  • Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have pledged to take a coronavirus vaccine once it is made available to the general public.
  • Their promise comes as a vaccine is on the horizon, but many are unwilling to take it. According to a Gallop poll, 42% of Americans do not want to take the vaccine, with many feeling uneasy about how quickly it has been developed and others wanting to wait and see how safe it is.
  • The three former presidents hope their willingness to take it will boost public trust in the vaccine. Facebook is also engaging in efforts to promote that trust by removing posts with misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.
  • The timing for a vaccine could not be any more crucial. On Wednesday the U.S. broke two devastating records, reporting over 2,800 deaths in a day and 100,000 hospitalizations.

Presidents Pledge To Take Vaccine

The three most recent former U.S. presidents have pledged to take the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available to the general public. 

During an interview Barack Obama did on the Joe Madison Show that was published Wednesday, the 44th president said that as long as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases thinks it’s safe, so does he. 

“I promise you that when it’s been made for people who are less at risk, I will be taking it,” he added. “I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people know that I trust this science.” 

Representatives for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton told CNN that both would be willing to participate in any effort to encourage people to vaccinate themselves against the deadly coronavirus, which has sickened 14 million Americans and killed over 274,000.

“A few weeks ago President Bush asked me to let Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx know that, when the time is right, he wants to do what he can to help encourage his fellow citizens to get vaccinated,” Bush’s Chief of Staff Freddy Ford told CNN. “First, the vaccines need to be deemed safe and administered to the priority populations. Then, President Bush will get in line for his, and will gladly do so on camera.”

Angel Urena, Clinton’s press secretary, said that he will “definitely take a vaccine as soon as available to him, based on the priorities determined by public health officials. And he will do it in a public setting if it will help urge all Americans to do the same.”

Americans Skeptical of Vaccine

This comes as a vaccine for COVID-19 is on the horizon. Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted their vaccines for FDA approval and expect to get the go-ahead in just a few weeks. Healthcare workers and vulnerable populations could get shots this month, but many Americans are unwilling to get this vaccine. 

A mid-November Gallup poll asked participants: “If an FDA-approved vaccine to prevent coronavirus/COVID-19 was available right now at no cost, would you agree to be vaccinated?”

In response, 58% said they would, and 42% said they would not. This shows slightly more interest in the vaccine now than in the fall, when Americans were at a 50/50 split on the subject. However, it shows less enthusiasm than in the summer, when 66% of people said they would get the vaccine and only 36% said they would not. 

As far as why so many people would turn down the vaccine, 37% of those who said ‘no’ claimed they felt the vaccine timeline and development was rushed. Another 26% said they wanted to wait to confirm it was safe, while 10% said they wanted to wait to see how effective it is. Many of these people could likely come around and choose to take the vaccine later on. Still, 12% of those who responded ‘no’ said that they do not trust vaccines in general.

Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy

Health officials are working hard on messaging that aims to limit vaccine hesitancy. During a Wednesday appearance on Fox News, Dr. Fauci criticized the fast pace in which the U.K. approved Pfizer’s vaccine, claiming that a turnaround that fast will lead to people questioning whether or not they should take it. 

“If you go quickly and you do it superficially, people are not going to want to get vaccinated,” he explained. “We have the gold standard of a regulatory approach with the FDA. The U.K. did not do it as carefully and they got a couple of days ahead, I don’t think that makes much difference.” 

Social media companies like Facebook are also working on vaccine messaging. On Thursday, the company put out a blog post promising to remove COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. This could involve taking down conspiracy theories and false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines.

The need for a coronavirus vaccine has never been greater. On Wednesday, for the first time since the pandemic began, hospitalizations for COVID-19 topped 100,000, which is a 26% jump from two weeks ago. The U.S. also reported over 2,800 deaths, another pandemic record. Some experts believe the country is on track to regularly surpass 2,000 or 3,000 deaths a day, and even approach 4,000.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (NPR) (Axios)

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COVID-19 May Have Been in the U.S. December 2019, New Study Shows

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  • A new government report found that the coronavirus may have been in the United States in December 2019, weeks before the first confirmed case.
  • For the study, the CDC looked at over 7,000 blood samples taken in nine states between December 13, 2019 and January 12, 2020.
  • Researches found COVID-19 antibodies in 106 of those samples, with at least one sample per state having antibodies.
  • These findings are in line with several other studies in the U.S. and well other countries which have found that the coronavirus was likely spreading globally before health officials were aware of it.

Report Shows Potential U.S. Cases in December

COVID-19 may have made its way to the United States in December of 2019, weeks earlier than previously thought, according to a new government study. 

That study was published Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal. The first coronavirus case was reported in Wuhan, China at the end of December. The first case in the United States was not reported until mid-January, but health experts have long wondered if the disease had been spreading sooner than that. 

For the study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 7,389 blood donations collected by the American Red Cross between December 13, 2019 and January 17, 2020 from donors across nine states.  Of those samples, antibodies showed up in 106. Antibodies came up from people in each state, with 39 coming from California, Oregon and Washington and the other 67 coming from Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Connecticut or Rhode Island.

Further testing was done on a majority of these samples to confirm that these antibodies were related to this specific outbreak and not part of other common coronaviruses. The data showed that they “were obviously from SARSCoV-2 infected individuals.”

“The findings of this report suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infections may have been present in the U.S. in December 2019, earlier than previously recognized,” the authors wrote. 

The study provides major context about the virus and the way it may have been spreading, completely unknown to public health officials for quite some time. The authors of the study believe this information will kelp experts better understand the pandemic, how it started, and how it can be mitigated. 

“Understanding the dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic from early introduction throughout further progression will advance understanding of the epidemiology of this novel virus and inform allocation of resources and public health prevention interventions to mitigate morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19,” the report said.

While the study provides incredible insight into the start of the coronavirus, the authors did also note there are limitations to what can be learned from it. For example, the data in the study should not be used to measure the magnitude of infections on a state or national level. It also cannot determine if these people came into contact with the virus from traveling, community spread, or another means of transmission. Though, a previous study of blood donors indicated that only around 3% had traveled outside of the U.S. in the 28 days prior to their donation.

Other Studies Suggest Earlier Spread

This is not the first study to suggest that COVID-19 was spreading this widely so soon. Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist explained on Twitter that this news matches up with a wastewater analysis, which found that the virus was potentially in Europe, specifically in Northern Italy, in mid-December. It also matches early indicator data that found excess flu illnesses in the province Wuhan is in during early December. 

Additionally, a separate report published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal last week found that the United States may have had significantly more COVID-19 cases than recorded. Since so many cases go unreported and undetected because many have no or mild symptoms, the study aimed to find the true number of cases the country may have seen at this point. 

“To estimate the cumulative incidence SARS-CoV-2 infections, symptomatic illnesses, and hospitalizations, we adapted a simple probabilistic multiplier model,” the study explained. “Laboratory-confirmed case counts that were reported nationally were adjusted for sources of under-detection based on testing practices in inpatient and outpatient settings and assay sensitivity.”

The authors found that only one out of every 2.5 hospitalized infections and one out of every seven non-hospitalized illnesses may have been nationally reported. This means that between February 27 and September 30, there may have been 52.9 million total infections in the U.S.

These cases, however, are unconfirmed and based on the model created. Currently, the U.S. has seen 13.6 million confirmed cases and lost 268,626 lives to the coronavirus.

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (NPR) (Bloomberg)

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